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New Name, New Homes, Lower Rents

Affordable housing in county gets a boost from joint project.

Mount Vernon area just gained a significant addition to one of the most sought after, yet elusive, elements of community development throughout the entire Greater Washington Area — 340 units of affordable housing.

Through a working partnership of private enterprise, a quasi-state government entity, a federal tax credit program, and a New England-based financing organization, a 37-year-old apartment complex in the Route 1 corridor has been transformed into a tangible example of what can be accomplished when cooperation and ingenuity join forces. It even has a new name.

Lafayette Apartments, 7136 Groveton Gardens Road, just off Lockheed Boulevard, are available to persons earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. And, these one, two, and three bedroom units far exceed the commonly held impression of affordable housing.

While paying below-market rental fees, tenants are able to enjoy such upscale amenities as modern kitchens and baths with all new appliances and maple cabinetry, new thermal windows, energy efficient heating and cooling systems, and digital high-speed cable access. The new 6,000 square foot clubhouse contains a state-of-the-art fitness center and computer learning center.

ALL THIS WAS brought about by Silverwood Associates, Inc., of Northern Virginia, working in concert with the Virginia Housing Development Authority and Boston Capital which obtains equity investments from participants in the Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.

Standing in the common room of the new community center last Wednesday, prior to the official ribbon cutting ceremony, Mark Silverwood praised those who had joined in the effort and noted, "Lafayette Apartments proves what can be done with imagination and resources."

Joining him at the podium were Susan Dewey, executive director, VHDA, and A. Guy Hubschman, vice president, Boston Capital Institutional Investing. "Our mission is all about affordable housing and to insure affordable housing is available throughout Virginia," Dewey said.

Hubschman pointed out that his firm has been working with Silverwood since 1979. Lafayette Apartments is their eighth cooperative project. Silverwood recently renovated the 172-unit Quebec Apartments in Arlington and is currently redoing that jurisdiction's Columbia Heights apartments to create 109 affordable units rental apartments and 96 condominiums.

Two long-time residents of the complex praised Silverwood for what they have accomplished. "I've lived here since the early 70's and this is a wonderful transition. It's like getting a new home without moving," said Larry Smith.

He was joined in his praise by James Graham. "Throughout the years I've seen a lot of changes. But, I particularly like this change," he said.

IN ADDITION TO its bricks and mortar transformation, Lafayette Apartments will become the site for a community academy under the aegis of Communities in Schools of Northern Virginia. Its goal is to increase SOL scores, according to Carolyn R. Tabarini, director, Community Academies.

"The investment Silverwood has made is greatly appreciated," she said. "It is our job to build parent involvement in their children's education. This is done by establishing our academies in complexes such as Lafayette."

Communities in Schools is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education. Each academy assesses the needs of not only the students but also the parents in areas of educational and recreational programs. As a non-profit entity, they partner with other organizations such as United Community Ministries and the police, according to Tabarini.

In April 2002, Silverwood purchased the 17-acre Groveton Apartments, built in 1966, from its original developer, B.F. Saul Company, for $22 million. Silverwood then embarked on a $16 million renovation that encompassed replacing all building roofs and windows; gutting the existing community building next to the pool to double its size and create a new clubhouse; refurbishing the pools and tennis courts; and replacing all flooring throughout the 340 units.

To help pay for this project, Boston Capital placed $9.6 million in tax credit equity funding from participants in the LIHTC program. Enacted in 1986, it encourages development of affordable housing. In exchange for their investments, participants are allowed to reduce their Federal tax liability.

Silverwood utilized tax credit equity from that program and funding from VHDA to pay for the $38 million invested in acquisition and renovation. These funding vehicles reduce the project's debt service, enabling tenants to benefit from lower than market rental fees, according to Silverwood. Apartment rents at Lafayette range from $750 to $1,260 per month depending on unit size. That is approximately $200 to $300 per month under market.

"We have a thorough resident screening process in the application stage. Each potential resident must pass a credit and criminal background check as well as income verification," said Melissa Shanahan, Lafayette's tax credit compliance manager. "Residents are also required to inform management if and when their income increases."

LACK OF affordable housing is one of Fairfax County's greatest challenges, according to its Department of Housing and Community Development. During the 1990's, the number of jobs rose three times as fast as the number of affordable homes. Rental rates have risen 17 percent since 1990. Since 1998, the county has lost more than 700 subsidized housing units.

"The Lafayette Apartment project accomplished two things for the Route 1 corridor: the complete rehabilitation of an established apartment complex within our already revitalizing community, and preservation of needed affordable housing for working families," said Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman.

"I am happy that in these times of budget belt-tightening, creativity allowed this project to be completed without any money from Fairfax County," Kauffman said. The project is located in his district.